Rethinking detachment

I discovered mysticism when I was 15.

Having grown up with an unhappy home life I immediately saw it as a way to overcome what I thought was generic suffering and struggle in life.

My approach to mysticism was firmly focused on the negative conditions I wished to overcome, with the promise that if I could just get my unenlightened mind out of the way, then everything would be perfect exactly as it was.

But the mystics I was reading didn’t necessarily envisage dysfunctional conditions as the starting point.

Even theologically: samsara, the vale of tears, the fallen human condition…these include all forms of evil and suffering in life, but more specifically they refer to a systematic spiritual condition.

That’s why Buddhists want to be born into conditions that make it easier to achieve enlightenment. It’s hard to focus on enlightenment when you’re fleeing for your life from war or famine.


Detachment was supposed to be the starting point, the necessary condition for the vision of God within all and beyond all.

It was our attachment to worldly things, through our desires and aversions, that rendered us blind to the supreme being behind and above it all.

I practiced detachment to counteract the suffering and negative conditions in my everyday life, with the understanding that if I could first find freedom from those bonds, the Way would then assert itself naturally and gently into my experience.

And then everything would be all right.

But my vision of the goal was a purely negative one: freedom from suffering and affliction and constraints. My ideal was limited to a kind of neutral spiritual ease and flow where I’d be freed from troubles but also empty of self and any kind of satisfaction or personal preference.

I’m now recognising that my lack of personal preference and the goal of neutrality and perfection amidst the conditions that had caused suffering and struggle still reflect unhealthy adaptations to unhappy childhood circumstances.

“There’s no point complaining, nothing is going to change, so just accept it.”

Detachment as a spiritual principle is not supposed to affirm the submissiveness or depersonalisation of a child who feels crushed and bullied. Being good at ignoring one’s own feelings is not the kind of strength that spiritual freedom can grow from.

Nonetheless this was my ideal: to become a spiritual non-person, inspired by the Buddhist themes of “no self” and Christian themes of “dying to self”.

Positive thinking

I don’t want to invalidate those themes that used to inspire me, and I don’t think my inspiration was wholly bad or off course. But combining spiritual ideals with personal dysfunction explains why my path didn’t lead where I thought it should.

Embracing the positive thinking/law of attraction material taught by Esther Hicks under the guise of “Abraham” set me on a course that would redeem my past spiritual ideals without prolonging the dysfunctional aspects of submissiveness and depersonalisation. Sorting the wheat from the chaff, not in the teachings of others but in my own foundational beliefs and self-perception.

I was always good at practicing detachment. But detachment is only the first stage in a spiritual rapprochement with the divine.

Where I went wrong in the past was in asking or expecting the divine to do something impossible – make me happy amidst profoundly unhappy conditions. Or more pointedly, to make me happy despite holding beliefs that ran utterly counter to my happiness.

Just as a minor example: if you believe in divine providence, you should not feel anxious about anything let alone material wealth and comfort. Divine providence conflicts with a stingy, fearful mindset about money.

Yet if we think that being a miser is in fact a good and virtuous way to live, then we cannot fully embrace the divine being in our lives.

Spiritual austerity or the abundance of life?

The way I saw it was that God had created everything in perfection, but humanity somehow went wrong.

That wrongness in us was perpetuated through our desires and aversions to the things of life.

But if we could let go of our desires and aversions we would find God waiting for us with a spiritual perfection that transforms everything.

My mistake was in thinking that desires and aversions had no place in the scheme of things other than as a symptom of our fallen nature.

But our preferences – consisting of desires and aversions – are the material of our individual lives.

The detachment required is not supposed to be our final resting place, but is to be practiced as a means of preparing ourselves for a much greater life.

Jesus said “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

But we cannot accept or receive that abundant life unless we are detached from the constraints and limitations of our present existence, where negative beliefs and expectations keep us mired in the same patterns of behaviour and the same familiar experience.

It’s obvious in the Gospels that the people whom Jesus healed strongly desired healing, and their faith was synonymous with the detachment from their prior condition of sickness.

They did not simply detach from the desire for health or the aversion to sickness and limply or dispassionately observe their change in physical condition.

They did not say “Oh, now that I am no longer caught up in my desires and aversions, I notice that I am healthy.”

No, they were joyful and full of appreciation.

Detachment…and then?

So I think the answer is to practice detachment with the faith and expectation that my desires will be fulfilled – practice detachment so as to desire more strongly, detaching not from the things of love and joy that enlighten my life, but from the restrictions, disbelief, and fears that cast a shadow over it.

It is not detachment into emptiness, but detachment into possibility, promise, and therefore faith, hope, and love.

16 thoughts on “Rethinking detachment

  1. Pingback: Rethinking detachment — zacalstin – studybreak

    • Thanks QP. Yeah, everything I understood and practiced was coloured by my pre-existing beliefs, and a sense of urgency about changing myself. I was looking for self-transformation, and I projected that onto all references to “realising” emptiness, or the divine, etc.

      • Wow that sounds actually like in the end you did have a powerful realization?

        Emptiness is best described as saying that things conditioned or otherwise do not have any real existence in and of themselves. That’s a mouthful but practically it means that we habitually ascribe many qualities such as permanence, like, and dislike that things simply do not have. Modern quantum physics seems to pointing us in this same direction as well with these ever smaller particles that at some point decay in microseconds.
        Anyway it’s all a journey and don’t forget to have some fun on the way 😉


            • I tend to write from a kind of amalgamation of both.
              I was raised Anglican and then Catholic, but in my search I read texts from a number of different religions: Daoist, Confucian, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist (Zen/Chan, Tibetan, and Theravada), Sufi, and even some New Thought/New Age.
              The underlying commonalities became obvious in the sense that there is a transcendent reality beyond words, which different people have tried to express in the context of their own cultural, religious, and historical perspective.
              It’s possible to find points of discrepancy between them all of course, but I’m drawn to the points of convergence.
              Eventually I studied orthodox Christian theology more seriously and found that it enhanced my sense of the shared vision among these different traditions.
              I even planned to do a PhD to examine correlations between Buddhist teachings on emptiness and a branch of Christian metaphysics about the contingency of creation. That got waylaid, and I’m glad I didn’t get further into it, but to me the parallels are obvious.
              In Christian theology there’s a notion of the “negative way” or via negativa which means that God so totally transcends human thoughts, words, and distinctions that there is nothing we can say about him. All words are merely “fingers pointing at the moon” ; )

              • What an interesting perspective, so now I know why I could not figure that out. I really like what you say about the points of convergence, I wish there was more of this. If fact it’s less and less to be found, the new apologetic movement found in the church today seems to attack other beliefs quite vociferously.
                In my tradition we have what are called pointing out instructions to understand the nature of mind. The texts are usually called mahamudra or maha ati and there are many commentaries for them. The idea is that the full experience of mind or enlightenment is not something we can precisely label. We can only point at it from all angles and vectors and say this is what it looks like from here, as it is beyond our dualistic language and understanding.

                Very cool,

                Thanks QP

                • Awesome! Thanks QP, that’s very encouraging. I was into apologetics for a while, but I think it really suits a different personality type. But I learned a lot from trying to fit myself into that shape…starting with “I don’t want to do this anymore”. ; )

                • I wanted to ask you a bit about apologetics. I understand that it is supposed to be a rational defense of the faith. But there are many apologetic writers here on WordPress and other online communities that seem to use the apologetic front to actively attack other faiths with such awful misinformation. It seems no longer a defensive but an offensive action. Is this just me? What did you find when you where in the movement?


                • I got into it about 14 years ago, and to me it was refreshing to find people showing that most things about the faith had a reasonable foundation behind them.
                  Most of it was defensive, and there was a sense of pride in the intellectual tradition of the church, and a kind of confidence that people just needed to be better educated about it.
                  I didn’t see a lot of commentary on other religions – there was occasional stuff about Buddhism that was usually deeply inadequate and superficial. The stuff on Islam tended to be better quality.
                  That said, since Pope Francis was elected the “neo-conservative” movement which included a lot of apologists has largely fallen apart. A bit like politics generally, everyone has become more extreme.

                  The other issue is that apologetics can become a temptation to intellectual pride, especially for a certain type of personality that thrives on having “all the answers” and beating others over the head with them.

                  If you like you can point me to a couple of examples and I’ll try to place them for you ; )

                • Ah I see. It looks like all three are evangelical protestants. The Catholic apologists I used to read have a much stronger intellectual tradition than the evangelicals. The evangelicals are more recently trying to boost their intellectual credibility. So I would say in general that evangelicals are less intellectually-inclined, and in particular the first and second link you provided are more polemic in their intent. I don’t think this is a new trend in apologetics generally…but apologists tend to focus on what they think are the most pressing challenges and “threats”, so maybe in their worlds Buddhism is increasingly relevant?
                  The third one is a more serious critique of Buddhism, though I would say it is one-sided and coloured by his personal experience and upbringing. There’s always an audience for converts who inform people of the perils and pitfalls of their native religions.
                  I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Evangelicals are bound to be belligerent about the “inferiority” of other religions, but I think this is more about proving their own zeal and reinforcing/encouraging each other in their own faith.

                • Thank you for your answer and time. So what I can take away here is that the evangelicals are or have been known to be quite pushy but less informed than the catholic apologists. And you are right this is not a new phenomenon. Many christians still site poorly translated Buddhist texts that were completed in the colonial period in Indian history as the gospel truth. These translations were purposely falsely translated to further the needs of control of the colonial government and of the church.
                  What I don’t understand is how they can knowledge spread lies and misinformation in the service of their god.
                  Thanks 🙏 again.


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